A Marine commander who was serving in Beirut, Lebanon, when a terrorist bomb killed 241 servicemen there warned Friday that the United States could be opening itself to the same sort of tragedy in Somalia and Haiti and urged U.S. policy-makers to learn from past mistakes.
In his first public remarks on both the bombing and the politics of Oct. 23, 1983, Maj. Kevin McCarthy told 150 fellow Marines who gathered for a memorial at Fort Meade that the United States must "commit to nation-building, selectively and totally.
"In 1983, it was readily apparent to most, particularly the Marines, that nation-building was not viable," the major said. "The Marines had been deployed to Beirut to protect, then to nation-build, then to show America's resolve to a failed policy."
As in Somalia, where the mission of the troops changed from feeding the hungry to hunting down a fugitive warlord -- 18 servicemen were killed in one attack three weeks ago -- the situation in Beirut became deadly "because the politics of the situation changed," Major McCarthy said.
The officer, 39, who is assigned to the Naval Space Command in Dahlgren, Va., said after his 15-minute talk that he moved out of the Marine barracks a month before it was attacked.
A suicide driver crashed through sentry posts and detonated the equivalent of 12,000 pounds of TNT in the lobby as most of the servicemen in the barracks were sleeping. The blast, which left a crater 8 feet deep, killed 220 Marines, 17 sailors and four soldiers. The Marines pulled out four months later.
Master Sgt. Dan White, an audience member who retired from the Marine Corps in 1986 and was in Beirut when the attack occurred, said that Friday's memorial service will help people to remember and understand what happened.
He agreed that U.S. leaders should be careful intervening in foreign disputes.
"We have trouble rebuilding our own nation," he said. "We have to remember what happened in Beirut and take some lessons. That seems to be our failure -- to remember and learn from it."
In his speech, Major McCarthy said that public comment by soldiers who have experienced the bombing firsthand have been virtually nonexistent because of a self-imposed "code of silence" designed to "spare the families of the dead the pain of public rehashings."
He said he was speaking publicly now to ensure that Marines who are sent into future battles will go "with the benefit of what was so painfully learned in Beirut."
Even a decade after the incident, Major McCarthy said, he has a difficult time explaining "one of the most tragic, bitterly divisive and misunderstood military episodes. Why were we there, and what went wrong despite our best intentions?"
But he said that "time has made some things clearer," such as his belief that the soldiers did not die in vain.
"As a direct result of their sacrifice, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans live," the major said.
"One only needs to look at the cement barriers that protect every government building in D.C. to see the effect Beirut had on security," he said.